Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jeffery Paine's "Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West"

"When the story is told in these pages began, had most Americans tried to locate Tibet on a map, they would have pockmarked half the globe with bad-guess pinpricks. By the time the story ends, some Hollywood stars know more about Tibetan Buddhism than the Dalai Lama does-- or at least they act that way." Paine's wry sideswipe at Steven Seagal shows the wit and tone of this thoughtful-- if erratically edited-- introduction to a subject that will likely leave you craving more insight.

Paine takes us through not so much the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, described by Alan Watts as "Roman Catholicism on acid"; the appeal in the West of what's surpassed Zen since Watts & the Beats lies in its panoply of approaches towards wisdom, its exotic teachings, and its colorful characters. As Paine in his best chapter, on the Dalai Lama's appeal to live with utmost conviction yet astonishing flexibility, shows us, most Tibetans despite their escape from the horrors of decimation seem-- unlike so many presenters of religious doctrine-- to be enjoying themselves amidst their substitution of dogma or dictate with philosophical ambiguity, non-theistic contemplation, unpredictable practices, and creative props that both represent and deny the ultimate existence of gods. Not taking themselves seriously, the Tibetan lamas teach us, he displays in case studies of teachers and students, how to approach our life with the sense it's a game, played that comes and goes perpetually beyond the brief brackets of our birth and death in our present form.

"With its compact emphasis on individual meditation, Buddhism may fit the overpopulated" century as "it can accomodate itself and take up less space." (136-7) He wonders if more people sought diminishment of goods, more people might "possess an 'overabundance' of food and housing." Many in these pages dream of a transformed world through ethical principles based in Buddhism that others may incorporate, if free of the panoply that surrounds Tibetan versions of its teachings. Paine defines universality, individual responsibility, and heightened capabilities for personal growth turned social improvement as three civilizing features the dharma can share with other religions and moral systems.

Certainly, the appeal of a self-generated, yet outwardly directed, way of life that avoids fruitless fretting about salvation, eternity, and sin may be timed for our times better than Vedanta was for Christopher Isherwood's Hollywood, or even Zen, Paine hints, for its countercultural adoption. This issue deserved far more depth, but Paine does touch on essential points. He wonders if religions would improve by being more contradictory, communal vs. individual, mystical vs. practical, angelic or unadorned, "flinty" or "firm," as they adapt to a human nature more akin to Buddhist notions of impermanence, the unknowable, and the evanescent that underlies the illusion of relative, conventional "reality" as a transcendent, perpetual state.

These ideas burrow into the text, more in its latter chapters. He begins with Thomas Merton's in retrospect still-naive pilgrimage, when the Dalai Lama was little known by most in 1968. Harold Talbott, whose own journey from Fifth Avenue scion to Buddhist scholar gains attention later on as one of three case studies, served as Merton's go-between. Paine gives a solid overview of what in the anthology "Merton & Buddhism" more recently has gained needed scrutiny by scholars. Tibet's context within Western imperialism follows, with French explorer and writer Alexandra David-Neel's long life (1868-1969) spanning the cultural shift from fabled Shangri-La to hippie destination, if one no less exotic in the eyes of typical Westerners.

The romanticization, decried later by Patrick French in "Tibet, Tibet," and the adulation of the Dalai Lama, have long been present in the West. The difference is now, unlike when Diane Perry grew up in the 1950s in London, millions know now what few knew only in fragments, as Merton did, given the lack of communication with the West by lamas who had not yet gained Western followings until around 1970. Thubten Geshe and then notoriously Chögyam Trungpa spearheaded the British and American popularity of Tibetan lore. Paine's ability to get inside the minds of both teachers and students shows him at his best as a writer and interpreter throughout the book.

Trungpa, he suggests, soon figured out that Westerners could be jumpstarted into higher-level teaching than customary in Tibetan monasteries. Inspired by Shunryu Suzuki's similar shifts when he brought Zen to San Francisco earlier, Trungpa decided to shift into higher gear. Paine explains: "Meditation is so empty of content that it's hard to turn it into spiritual materialism or appropriate it for egotistical purposes." (93) For newcomers, who had lost "the principles of sacredness," Trungpa reduced the dharma to a secular-friendly core; for those who wanted to restore the Tibetan brocades, visualizations and enthronements commenced.

Therefore (as the uncredited Fields narrates in his history), Tibetan monastic practices began to be transferred outside their origins. By the 1990s as the process advanced, Alyce Neoli/ Catherine Burroughs emerged as a "tulku" of a reincarnated female "lama" chosen by the same Penor Rinpoche who later "recognized" Seagal-- after a few donations were made. The uncredited Kamenetz records that when the rabbis found out about how a "tulku" was found, they wondered: what if the lama makes a mistake? I wondered this too, when reading Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" about Alyce who became Jetsunma; Paine takes a sympathetic tone towards her, noting Tenzin Palmo's conclusion after reading Sherrill: "her follies are such the way such a being would behave," as recounted by Sherrill, "if he or she lacked the proper training." (158) Tenzin should know, as a girl attracted to a teaching she could not even define as Buddhist, so little being known then about Tibetan dharma by all but a few scholars from a few glimpses such as David-Neel's.

Tenzin Palmo's transformation's amazing; born a Cockney fishmonger's daughter Diane Perry when nobody born humble in postwar Britain knew of such teachings, ordained in 1964 as one of the first Western nuns, she later spent twelve years as a hermit in a cave 13,200 feet high in Ladakh, and then returning from her harrowing yet inspiring story to found a nunnery. David-Neel saw Buddhism from the outside; Perry became Tenzin to enter it.

The widening attraction of hitherto inaccessible teachings from a remote land rippled out from the hippies to the celebrities and by films. Not only explicitly about Tibet as in the 1990s, but filtered through "The Matrix" and "Jacob's Ladder," the bardo dramatized for everyday folks. The fact I don't explain that term speaks for the rapid spread over a generation of a thousand-year-old, isolated, esoteric science of the mind into popular culture, as if a medieval monk found himself lauded in Manhattan.

This may be a fad, or it may be a genuine sign of shift: Robert Thurman argues the latter, while Jean-Francois Revel & Matthieu Ricard ("The Monk & The Philosopher" 1996) James William Coleman in "The New Buddhists" (2001, neither work cited here) examines the appeal of Buddhism for many intellectual elites in the West; the teachings he finds have not trickled down yet. Pankraj Mishra from the Indian p-o-v also wonders about Buddha vs. Nietzsche at length in "An End to Suffering" (2004). Paine favors Shakespeare, Henry and William James as his references, well-employed if hard for an eager reader to track back-- more later about this shortcoming.

Paine, considering music and film, seems to feel the dharma's widening, but I wonder about the permanence of its impacts. De Tocqueville noted the American withdrawal from "delineation of the soul to fix exclusively on that of the body, and they substitute the representation of motion and sensation with that of sentiment and thought."

Daringly, Paine then links this prescient observation to Buddhism, which as with film uses projection to record sensory experiences and motion while leaving the soul's mysteries intangible. "Hollywood calls the illusions it makes from bodies, sensation, and motion 'cinema.' Buddhism calls the illusions made from them 'conventional reality.'" Paine provides a novel image when recounting how cinema and Tibetan Buddhism are both roughly a century old in their Western transmissions: "In both a movie and Buddhism, 'reality' is palpably, sensuously before us, making us laugh one moment and cry the next, but then vanishing insubstantially when the projectionist (or, in Buddhism, our projection) flicks off the switch." (179)

Paine again excites the reader by his ability to convey the wonder: he juxtaposes Talbott's Gatsby-esque tale of reinvention. Here, as with "tonglin" and "ngondro" and "chöd" Paine illustrates Tibetan terms deftly. "Our usual mental states are like the audience in a theater that gets caught up in the drama that unfolds." Contrast this with the emptiness and luminosity registered by Tibetans at this high stage. The state of play demanded as in quantum physics demands Talbott as a "dzogchen" practitioner abandon "reality" as it seems solid to our senses, for a mind so trained "resembles the playwright who exults in the creative play with which he maneuvers his imaginary puppets."(221)

His next case: a (psuedonymous to protect her reputation) Princeton deconstructionist feminist mid-life wonders about the appeal her tentative forays into Tibetan practice and reading reveal. A literary critic such as herself, Paine relates, follows a long path of scholarship most of her career, with "few genuine knock-you-off-your-chair discoveries left to be made." Tibetan Buddhism provides "Christine" with "her ticket into the unknown," after idly finding used at the Strand Bookstore Sogyal Rinpoche's influential "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." Yet, her colleagues, disdainful of any belief, may belittle her quest, so she pursues it in the morning at home, gingerly but with increasing fascination.

San Quentin's death row houses the final American turned Tibetan student, if at a distance behind bars. Jarvis Masters contemplates karma, impermanence, and mindfulness as translated into taking responsibility for one's actions, accepting how reality itself changes during one's sentence as faced with honesty, and how one must faced with one's term should cultivate an awareness to embrace not endure the present situation. As with Alyce Zeoli or Diane Perry in their ignorance of Buddhism constructed before their exposure to it a homespun notion of its dharma independently and even intuitively, so in prison, Paine considers, such stories "from both the sickbed and prison cell, indirectly support Buddhism's claim that it is not a religion but something that occurs 'in life'-- not a man-made, synthetic medicine but a plant with healing properties that grows of itself." (251)

The narrative concludes on such graceful notes. Still, the story needed more unfolding, given that Paine admits seven years' labor on its contents. Intended for the general reader, so lacking by his design footnotes or works cited, this superficially but persistently disappoints in its scattershot mention of many who've preceded Paine; Paine assures their books can be readily found, but his decision to eschew documentation makes this an uneven book, riddled with typos. W.Y. Evans-"Wenz" repeats, "Llasa" alternates with "Lhasa." "Arbie's" and "Guiness" appear; Stephen and Martine separately are surnamed "Bachelor" while "Into the Wild" is attributed to "John" Krakauer. The lack of credit given such as Rodger Kamenetz' "The Jew in the Lotus," the 1994 account of the 1990 visit by rabbis to Dharamsala, proves odd; Rick Fields' pioneering 1992 "How the Swans Came to the Lake" may also be familiar to readers already, but why not mention these popular and enduring predecessors that showed many Americans (as they did me) perhaps their first glimpses into Tibetan Buddhism?

These persistent shortcomings noted, the strength in Paine's narrative lies in his metaphorical mind. As he struggles, for instance, to match the mansion yearned for in Christian mentalities of the afterlife with the adding on of another room in a modern mind making room for hitherto unknown Tibetan dharma, he falters. But, he more often succeeds.

(P.S. I've reviewed Coleman, French, "Merton and Buddhism," Kamenetz, Mishra, Revel & Ricard, and Sherrill on Amazon U.S. and my "Blogtrotter" daily-ish blog; Sherrill's review's also in May on NTLATBR blog where longer reviews are cross-posted.)

1 comment:

The Rebels Yell! said...

Michael Longley was recently awarded a Festchrift from his publisher. It is a fitting tribute to one of the great Irish literary figures of our generation!